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Lava fields and ancient wisdom: tales from Chile's elemental Lake District

At the northern limits of Patagonia, a realm of hyper-active volcanoes and glassy lagoons offers some of Chile’s most elemental experiences, from ash-strewn hikes and white-knuckle whitewater rafting to meetings with the indigenous Mapuche people.

Petrohué Waterfalls, in Vicente Pérez Rosales National Park, with Osorno volcano in the background.

Photograph by Getty Images
By Jamie Lafferty
Published 12 Jul 2022, 06:03 BST

Here’s a story told in ash: a person came out to walk their dog along a track by the side of a volcano — an undulating, three-mile route defined by bamboo and untidy bushes and trees. To their left, the mighty Osorno volcano stood tall and intimidating beneath a high Chilean sky. The dog wasn’t on a lead and — presumably before the owner could react — it ran off. It had caught the scent of a pudu (one of the world’s smallest deer species), which it followed to a clearing. The dog found tracks, stuck its nose to the ground and tried to work out where its quarry had gone. Eventually, the owner caught up, retrieved their pet and, hopefully, got it under better control. The unharmed pudu’s tracks disappeared into the bushes. 

Guide Marcelo Campos tells me this story while looking at imprints in the granular, grey earth. His forensic analysis is possible thanks to an accumulation of detritus, not from the nearby Osorno Volcano, but Calbuco, around 10 miles away, which blew its top in 2015. Here in the heart of Chile’s Lake District, it helps to know which eruption from which volcano is responsible for the landscape in front of you — and which is likely to erupt next. 

Media photographs of that particular eruption are spectacular. It may have gone off with the force of a nuclear bomb, generating its own electrical storms as it spewed volcanic matter into the sky, but there’s something elemental and even beautiful captured in the shots. The aftermath is decidedly less photogenic. As I follow Marcelo along the path, he stops to pluck some ripe murta berries and show me some photos of Calbuco’s immediate aftermath. In them, ash covers every surface, knee deep in places. 

“Look at this,” says the guide as we approach the road at the end of our walk. Banks of ash line the road like accumulated snow. “Remember, this is from seven years ago. When the eruptions happen, they’re serious, no?”

No doubt they are, and the volcanoes are the reason I’ve come here. Well, not just them — also the lakes. Both abound in this part of southern Chile, creating unforgettable landscapes. I’d first come to this region as a dusty backpacker, broke and clueless, travelling between Patagonia and Santiago, the capital, by bus, inexplicably in a hurry. This time, I’m driving between the cities of Puerto Varas and Pucón, now able to take my time, no longer quite such an unwashed desperado, no longer having to share dorm rooms with strangers.

The only downside now is that I’m travelling in April, during the austral autumn, which means sacrificing the normal certainties that come with Chile’s weather. On the first hike with Marcelo — and during most of my time around Puerto Varas and Lake Llanquihue — rain falls with a vengeance. The only time it abates is one evening when I look out from the Hotel Awa as the sun tries its best to cut through a fog, rainbows flitting in and out of the mist so faintly and rapidly as to seem imagined.

A banded kingfisher singing  on the branch of a tree.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

So when Marcelo asks what I’d like to do after yet another soggy hike, I don’t really have an answer other than ‘sit by a fire’, which is of course unacceptable. I should be fatalistic about this, or at least logical — the water in all these lakes needs to come from somewhere after all — but I instead find myself being petulant, fed up. Marcelo reasons that perhaps I should go rafting. “I mean, man, how much wetter can you get?” Without a counterargument to hand, I follow him out the door. 

Half an hour later, I’m standing by the Petrohué River, staring at the water as raindrops perforate its surface. Don’t tell anyone, but for a few minutes I wonder if I’m past it — 39, tired, unable to find a helmet that fits. 

I start to think about the choices that brought me to this very place, in a deluge, afraid of what’s to come, surrounded by strangers. “OK, my team!” My rafting guide, Álvaro, isn’t going to let me mope. “Are you ready? I love my job! You’ll love my job too, my team!” Wild-eyed, long-haired, apparently free from anxiety, the 29-year-old from Puerto Montt has a sort of enthusiasm that is, if not infectious, then at least impossible to ignore. I help the six-person team lift the raft to the rocky shore, then listen to Álvaro’s detailed instructions and head out onto the river. 

It takes all of five minutes to have my entire mood turned upside down, the world shifting from glum to gleeful. I’m in the front row of the kayak, meaning each time we approach a rapid, I’m the one who’s first smashed in the face by hundreds of gallons of water. As we continue down the river, the rapids grow mountainous, and from my vantage point I see the river dropping away, then more water crashing over the bow, but some heady combination of adrenaline and dopamine means none of it matters. 

“Yes, my team!” shouts Álvaro, and I shout too, a formless, electrified noise, roaring over the rushing river.

Fresh tracks

If you travel a lot, perhaps you’ll know something of the excitement of the rental car lottery. Companies offer themselves a lot of wiggle room by attaching the words ‘or similar’ next to each vehicle they list. In my case, the 4x4 I thought I’d need for unsealed roads (of which there are actually very few in the Lake District) has been interpreted as a hulking, white pick-up truck. A Chinese brand called Great Wall, which Autocar describes as ‘slow-witted’ and ‘nowhere near as competent or sophisticated as its rivals’, it’s not at all similar to what I’d imagined. 

I’m worried that my luggage will get soaked in the exposed back of the track, but the deities that inhabit the Andes, whoever they are, have taken pity on me, replacing the torrential rains of yesterday with brilliant sunshine. And it’s such a spectacular journey, with volcanic peaks emerging and disappearing through clouds and trees, sometimes behind other mountains, sometimes through mists. 

Rural driving in Chile is mostly a polite affair — certainly compared to the more chaotic manoeuvring around Santiago — meaning I can look around and pull over for photos as I choose. Pastoral lands are plucked by black-faced ibis and belligerent southern lapwings, while the roadside is patrolled by idiotic chickens and lethargic dogs. Beyond them, poplar trees yellow in the autumnal sun; eventually, they’re joined by araucaria — known by the less elegant moniker ‘monkey puzzle trees’ in English — which are stubbornly remaining the hue of wilted spinach. The air is almost frightfully pure, the only variance coming when the sun warms the pine trees, perfuming the road. By the time I reach a viewpoint on the southern shore of Lake Ranco, the sky is cycling through a display of kaleidoscopic colours. All seems right with the world. 

Trekkers near Pucón make their way downhill as the sun sets.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

Waking up in Futangue Park the next morning, I realise I should have known better. A private park with an on-site hotel, it receives almost 13ft of rainfall a year, almost four times that of my native Glasgow, a city not exactly known as arid. Back in my waterproof clothing, I’m taken into the park by Tomas Rodriguez, a guide who’s nearing the end of a damp first few months working here.

Along the way, he points to evidence of the relentless competition for daylight in the forest — vines entwine with trombones of damp fungus that have hitched a ride on trees that have bested their neighbours. 

It’s a Black Friday stampede in slow motion. We’re mostly admiring the flora, but Tomas explains that there’s some rare fauna here, too, including the kodkod, or güiña, a tiny wildcat that’s as cute as a baby’s toes, although essentially invisible.

We’ve almost no hope of seeing one of them, but we are going to attempt to find another rare animal, the critically endangered Darwin’s frog. Tomas explains the technique for finding it — instructions I can just about hear as raindrops machine gun against my hood. “They’re almost impossible to see,” says my guide, “so we need to get a stick and run it across the ground. Hopefully it’ll make them jump. Oh, and please do not step on any frogs. They’re already in trouble.”

I wonder if this is a good time of year to be looking for these rare amphibians. “Not really,” says Tomas with incongruous cheer. “The breeding season has finished, and they’ve mostly gone away.”

I follow the guide along the mulchy path, stroking the ground with my now-damp stick, trying to provoke nonexistent frogs into jumping. For a second, I’m sure I’ve found one, before I realise a fat raindrop has hit a fallen leaf so hard it’s flipped it over.  

Non-intrepid travellers have no need to worry, there’s comfort to be had in this part of Chile — lavish hotels have been built to cater to every level of budget. Squelching through puddles, my enthusiasm lower than a slug’s belly, I begin to again question my own curiosity. Should I really be thinking about warm showers, comfortable beds and pisco sours at a time like this? Shouldn’t I be more focused on trying to find this brown frog?

“Here we are,” says Tomas after about 20 minutes. Darwin’s frog is so imperilled that he dons a pair of blue surgical gloves before carefully picking it up, turning it so I can see its startlingly black-and-white belly, then delicately placing it on some leaves. It’s not an exotic beauty, but the wee critter has more capacity to generate delight than it can possibly know. 

Rosario strips corn for a lunch inside her family home.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

While I take photos, Tomas turns full naturalist, explaining that this is one of only two frog species known to incubate their tadpoles in the father’s mouth. When the babies next see daylight, they too will be little frogs. 

As Tomas explains that because of its conservation status the exhilaration of finding the frog is joined by melancholy. I’m quite sure it’s not because of the rain trickling down my spine, but because of just how fragile this tiny little creature appears in this big, wet forest. Tomas delicately places it back exactly where he found it, and off it goes, its hops and our hopes comingling in the undergrowth. 

Bad moon rising

It would be easy to disparage Pucón, a town designed for, and used by, travellers, which we reach after another beautiful drive — four hours north from the town of Lake Ranco. Here you can find karaoke bars and T-shirt shops, tour companies and streetside hawkers. Yet the surrounding area is so scenic, so impossible to ignore, that somewhere was always going to have to take the hit and welcome the crowds. For better or worse, Pucón is it.

After several months of pandemic-enforced quiet, the place roared back to life for one strange week in December 2020, before quickly falling back into an eerie silence as another wave of the virus crept over the Andes. Although it’s now back to normal — with groups coming for hiking, rafting and mountaineering — the reason for the traffic during that curious week was celestial. 

I know about that peculiar time because I happened to be one of the few thousand people who made it to Pucón to see the total solar eclipse of 2020. It was perhaps the most singular, extraordinary and emotional moment of my life, an instant where I could feel something inside me alter, never to be quite the same again. Here was a great shadow passing over the Earth, and at its most awesome and terrifying extent a corona appeared before the darkness receded, and light once more flew across the sky.

In that carbuncle of a year, the eclipse felt like a miracle, but returning to Pucón, I find that some people experienced it very differently. The Indigenous Mapuche people hold their own beliefs around eclipses. For them, it’s a battle between the sun and moon, representing the death and magnificent rebirth of the former. “But it’s nothing to celebrate,” Rosario Colipi tells me inside her ruka (a traditional Mapuche home), which she’s opened up for cultural visits aimed at improving understanding of the lives of the Indigenous community. “For us, an eclipse is a sign of a bad omen. We also had one in 2018, and it told us the pandemic was coming. When the one came in 2020, we knew the problems would not end soon.”

Views from the terrace at &Beyond Vira Vira hotel, Pucón.

Photograph by Patricio Garrido

This revelation comes as a surprise — both that the celestial event could be viewed as evil, and that the Mapuche had so clearly linked the moon’s shadow to the coronavirus. But then, perhaps this very different interpretation shouldn’t be a surprise — they are, after all, a pre-Columbian people who see magic and meaning in nature, cherishing, even worshipping, things that other people ignore. 

Rosario toasts foraged monkey puzzle nuts over the open fire in the centre of the room, explaining that they wait for them to fall, rather than shaking the sacred trees. The aroma wafts around in the dark of the ruka, while the 68-year-old grandmother of 14 explains a little more about the Mapuche way of life. Tours like this often leave me worried that they’ll feel something like a human safari, but Rosario’s generosity puts me at ease. As does her patience — as I listen to her and eat the waxy nuts, I casually throw the shells into the fire. She calmly asks me to stop. “We don’t burn them, but collect them here and give them back to the Earth,” she says, while my face glows brighter than the flames.

Heading back out into the bright, autumnal morning, my pupils can hardly shrink quick enough as the white sun bounces off the snowy peak of the Villarrica volcano. The rains from earlier in the week now seem like a work of fiction. In some ways, so does the volcano — hulking, satisfyingly conical and always snow-capped, it looks almost too perfect. 

As a backpacker all those years ago, I’d climbed it, an ice axe needed near the top, then stood at its belching summit as sulphurous smoke encircled our hardy little group. With the weather so nice today, younger, fitter travellers are doing the same, but I wish them luck, having instead signed up for a shorter hike to Cerro Espejo (‘mirror hill’), one of several treks offered by &Beyond Vira Vira, a sprawling, luxurious hotel on the edge of Pucón Pucón that encourages its guests to get out into the extraordinary landscape. 

It will be, I’m told, much more forgiving than summiting Villarrica. After an hour of walking through pines and monkey puzzles, Magellanic woodpeckers cackling in the canopy, the forest peters out — eruptions from  the hyperactive peaks having made meaningful plant life an impossibility here. This natural clearing means that from the summit of Cerro Espejo the views are especially generous, even by the supernatural standards of the region. From here, I can see a waterfall, a lake and, inevitably, volcanoes, their snowy peaks blushing pink in the vanishing sun to create a landscape that suggests peace, if not forever, then at least for now.  

The pier at Llanquihue Lake at sunrise.

Photograph by Jamie Lafferty

Getting there & around

British Airways has the only direct flight from Heathrow to Santiago, departing twice a week.
Average flight time: 14h.
European carriers such as Iberia and Air France offer one-stop flights via their European hubs, while Avianca flies via Bogotá, and American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines via US hubs. Car rental is available in Puerto Montt and Pucón. 

When to go

November and December, during the austral summer, are recommended, when average temperatures hover around 24C. January is best avoided due to the proliferation of insects. February and March are also pleasant before the rain returns in April, and temperatures drop to around 3C in July. 

More info

Alsur Expeditions, for rafting on Petrohué River.
Mawida Adventures, for Mapuche cultural visits.
Chile Tourism.
The Rough Guide to Chile. RRP: £16.99

How to do it

Journey Latin America offers a nine-night self-drive holiday in Chile’s Lake District from £3,624 per person, including two nights at Hotel Awa in Puerto Varas, two at Futangue Hotel & Spa and three at &Beyond Vira Vira in Pucón. Plus, domestic flights from Santiago, hire car in the Lake District, excursions and most meals. Excludes international flights.

Published in the July/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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